South by Southwest: Musicians look for new direction as festival evolves

Global Business

South by Southwest began in 1987 as a festival for underground bands in the Texas city of Austin.

Today, it’s also a global forum for entrepreneurs, tech firms and Hollywood directors to showcase their latest creations.
 And, yet all the attention and the money it brings is making life harder for some of the bands who give SXSW its identity.

CGTN’s Owen Fairclough reports.

Steve Marsh, frontman for veteran punk three-piece Terminal Mind, launches into their set – the first Austin band to take the stage at this year’s music showcase.

Steve is an Austin local who played the first festival and several times since. But it’s not getting easier.

“The culture itself has changed and not necessarily for the better,” he said .
”I think what’s promotable is more limited now than back in the day. It was a lot more kind of freewheeling process—not as many bands and not as many places to play. So, you didn’t really get overwhelmed or get lost in the shuffle.”

Spend just a few minutes in downtown Austin and it’s easy to see what he means.
There are hundreds of artists playing from dozens of countries, all looking for the deal that can transform their careers.

Overseas bands can spend thousands of dollars just to get here. 
If you can’t afford it, one way is to let your government foot some of the bill.

German authorities and companies spent just under half a million dollars bringing a delegation of bands and experts to turn one bar into the German Haus.
Even regional governments such as Hessen – best known for its financial hub Frankfurt – want to be here.

“I believe the idea of how to promote digitalization – not only in arts but also in economy – that is something I hope we can take from this festival here,” 
Rolf Krämer, head of Culture and New Media Economy for Germany’s Hessen region, said.

That’s a discussion for the countless panel discussions that can make SXSW feel distinctly un-rock n roll. 
But with Steven Spielberg premiering his latest movie “Ready Player One” and Elon Musk talking space travel, SXSW is luring hundreds of thousands of visitors who make this ten-day event worth $350 million to Austin.

But some fear South by Southwest is danger of losing its original purpose—to promote local music.

Others aren’t ready to give up.

Ryan Cano, Owner of The Loyalty Firm, is responsible for showcasing Terminal Mind and a handful of other Austin bands this year.

“These are some of the best bands this city offers and if you come to my showcase, this is what it’s going to be like the rest of the year if you come visit Austin. So this is kind of a big billboard for how great live music here,” he said.

For Steve, it’s an opportunity to continue doing what he loves, even if he can’t make a full-time living from music.

“It’s just trying to be a big world renowned festival and you gotta be as inclusive as you can with the things that are going to draw people. But being in a band… it’s a lot of competition,” he added.

Don Pitts discusses the business of music at SxSW

CGTN’s Owen Fairclough spoke with Don Pitts, founder of Sound Music Cities about streaming revenues and the role of SxSW to the music industry.